Gilbey on Film: Grace Jones at the cinema

The singer has never had the film roles she deserves.

So Grace Jones stole the show at the Queen’s Jubilee concert, all hoops and hoopla. That news has got to be up there with “Sun rises”, “Grass still green” and “Ocean wet today.” What did you expect? Tuning in to Jones’s blissful extra-terrestrial frequency just for those four minutes of “Slave to the Rhythm” reminds me that, as far as the movies are concerned, Grace Jones is the one that got away. Cinema held on to a piece of Bowie and Jagger, Madonna and Prince, even Dylan, but no Grace Jones. Not yet.

Oh, she has appeared in films, and even, in some cases (such as the raunchy vampire movie Vamp), she has given off low-voltage jolts of that electricity which makes her such a compelling stage performer. But Bowie at least has The Man Who Fell to Earth; Jagger has Performance; Madonna has Desperately Seeking Susan (an inconsequential film but a part that decisively crystallised and fed her emerging persona); Prince has Purple Rain and Dylan has Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Keynote films, testaments to charisma, proof enough that these performers possessed a personality and a visual sense of themselves which could not be contained on vinyl alone.

Despite the tacky pleasures of Vamp, Grace Jones doesn’t have one of those movies to her name. She was used as a novelty act in Roger Moore’s final Bond film, A View to a Kill, like an exotic animal hired for display purposes only at a freemasons’ ball. (What a shame that Duran Duran were guilty of - I mean, responsible for - that film’s theme song even though Jones was in the building, so to speak.) She popped up in other, even more rickety projects unworthy of her jungle-cat elegance and Frankenstein’s-monster menace: Conan the Destroyer, a sequel which no one wanted, in which she had to suffer the indignity of competing with Arnold Schwarzenegger for the camera’s attention; the Eddie Murphy rom-com Boomerang. I have fond memories of seeing the oddball thriller Siesta and Alex Cox’s western Straight to Hell, both in the late 1980s, but in both instances Jones was lost in the celebrity smorgasbord, one special guest star among many. And if there’s one thing you should never do with Jones, it’s overlook her.

Mostly she has chosen wayward or unpromising projects that gave her no chance to dazzle as she does on stage. I’d love to know why. Were better offers not extended to her? Her background is in theatre; she also starred in the 1973 Blaxploitation film Gordon’s War (which I haven’t seen). But that’s slim pickings for an artist so steeped in the visual. The fact that her music gives such good cinema only makes me ache even more to see her in a juicy role on screen. Our lists of favourite movies are restricted to celluloid, but it must be acknowledged that Jones’s Nightclubbing album (like Lou Reed’s Berlin or Ariel Pink’s Worn Copy) is one of the most stubbornly haunting films never made. David Lynch or Paul Schrader or the Jane Campion of In the Cut could have cooked up a role worthy of her - they could have made a whole movie based on the Nightclubbing album cover of her square, sculpted, metallic face - but would they have been ready for the creative battles that might have ensued on set? Our one hope could be that Matthew Barney is preparing a Grace Jones vehicle, but before I get too excited I have to keep reminding myself that wanting it doesn’t make it so.

Grace Jones performs at the Queen's Jubilee Concert on 4 June (Photo: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.